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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

So the Cat Doesn't Get Your Tongue

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??????? ?????: next to nothing

I love it when readers send in questions. Really, I do. I love to cover my desk with 15 reference books, all propped open with staplers, precariously balanced and sprouting bits of colored paper as page markers. I love using up three Internet cards searching the web. And I love driving my friends crazy with usage queries.

Are we having fun yet?

One reader was curious about cat expressions, a topic always relevant in my home, where a pair of felines constantly threaten the precarious book balance and play with the page markers.

First of all, there are cat characters. ?????? ??? (fat cat) is a calque from English and in colloquial speech is used to denote a very rich person, most commonly the kind of uncaring industrialist who destroys rain forests or owns sweatshops. ?????? ???? ???????????? ???????? ?????? ?? ?????? ???????? ??????? ? ????? ?? ???? ?????????. (Fat cats earn huge amounts of money on dodgy trade deals and live at the expense of the population.) This bad cat is very different from ??? ???????? (Leopold the Cat), a delightful cartoon character that is always trying to make peace and avoid conflict with less benign creatures. ?? ?? ??????????? -- ????????, ?? ??? ????????. (He isn't quarrelsome; on the contrary, he's as peace loving as Leopold the Cat.)

Both of these differ from ?????, ??????? ?????? ???? ?? ????. This is a translation of the Rudyard Kipling story "The Cat That Walked By Himself," and has come to mean an independent soul. ????? ?? ???? ?????????! ?? -- ?????, ??????? ?????? ???? ?? ????. (Family man -- him?! He's as independent as a cat.)

Then there's the kind of cat you shouldn't buy: ??? ? ????? (literally, a cat in a bag), what we call a pig in a poke. This expression is apparently derived from the ancient market scam of putting an inedible cat in a sack of edible rabbits. Today the same occurs when, for example, you buy a used car without an engine check. ???? ?? ?????? ??????????, ????????????? ? ????????-??????????, -- ???????????? ???????: ???????? ???? ? ????? ?? ????? ?????. (One of the most important requirements for a supplier is transparency: No one wants to buy a pig in a poke.)

A puzzling expression is ?????? ???? ?? ????? (literally, to pull a cat by its tail). This nasty image actually means "to drag something out," either in words or actions. ?? ????? ?????? ???? ?? ????? ? ????? ??????? ?????? ???????????! (We won't keep you in suspense -- we'll announce the winners right away.) Etymologists tussle over the origins of this phrase. It may be a conflation of ?????? ????? or ?????? (to drag something out) and a calque of the French expression "to pull the devil by his tail," but how the cat got in there is anyone's guess.

Another strange feline expression is ??? ???????? (literally, "the cat cried"), meaning "next to nothing." Word mavens think this comes from the observation that cats don't shed tears, so it refers to miniscule quantities. With this expression, whatever is in short supply goes in the genitive case: ?????????? ?????, ? ???????????? ??????????? -- ??? ????????. (There are plenty of theoreticians, but no practical results to speak of.) You could also just refer to ??????? ????? (literally, cat's tears), although this is less common: ?? ????? ???????? -- ??????? ?????. (In the Urals salaries are a joke.)

Like English speakers, Russians also note that ? ????? ?????? ?????? (cats have nine lives), or they describe them as being ??????? -- they'll survive anything. ???????, ??? ???????, ??????? ? ??????? ??? ?????. (Women are generally strong and, like cats, have nine lives.)

Which means that my cats can tip over all the reference books and still live to see another day.

Michele A. Berdy is a Moscow-based interpreter and translator.